It was just over a year ago when I wrote the following piece on the mythology of Santa’s flying reindeer and its connection to hallucinogenic Arctic mushrooms. I started writing it right after watching a BBC pocket documentary on the subject (you can watch it below), but soon it became an extended version, touching on the history of the entire Santa Claus myth. I’m reposting it today, because I’ve decided it’s going to be an annual FEElguide tradition from now on. Enjoy!
Saint Nicholas of Myra is the primary inspiration for the Christian figure of Santa Claus. He was a 4th century Greek Christian bishop of Myra (now Demre) in Lycia, a province of the Byzantine Anatolia (now in Turkey). Nicholas was famous for his generous gifts to the poor, in particular presenting the three impoverished daughters of a pious Christian with dowries so that they would not have to become prostitutes. Through the centuries the mythology mixed with pre-Christianic German paganism (notably the god Odin), Dutch folklore, and the British character of Father Christmas (from the 1600s) and the Western world’s myth of Santa Claus was born. British colonies in North America, and eventually the United States, took the myth of Santa Claus and merged it with the Christmas season around the early 1800s. Our modern concept of exactly what Santa Claus looks like can be traced to three events: 1) an 1863 illustration of Santa published by Harper’s Weekly; 2) L. Frank Baum’s “The Life And Adventures Of Santa Claus” (a 1902 children’s book); and 3) the Coca Cola Christmas advertising campaigns of the 1930s.
The gifts are, of course, delivered by his sleigh which is powered by flying reindeer, and on the evening of December 24th and early December 25th, both time and space become compressed and countless people wake up to their magical delivery beneath their Christmas trees. The story of the flying reindeer is a fascinating one in its own right and has its roots to the shamanic natives of Siberia. In the arctic circle region of Siberia can be found vast reindeer herds numbering in the hundreds of thousands. Their main food source is the Amanita Muscaria mushroom or the “Fly Agaric” Mushroom (this mushroom is commonly seen in books of fairy tales and usually is associated with magic and fairies). It contains extremely potent hallucinogenic compounds once used by ancient peoples for insight and transcendental experiences. Most of the major elements of the modern Christmas celebration, such as Santa Claus, Christmas trees, magical reindeer and the giving of gifts, are originally based upon the traditions surrounding the harvest and consumption of this most sacred mushroom. Amanita Muscaria grows only under certain types of trees, mostly firs and evergreens and the cap of the mushroom (a bright red and white much like Santa himself) is the fruit of the larger mycelium beneath the soil which exists in a symbiotic relationship with the roots of the tree. To ancient people, this mushroom was literally “the fruit of the tree.” The North Star was also considered sacred, since all other stars in the sky revolved around its fixed point. They associated this “Pole Star” with the concept of the “World Tree” and the central axis of the universe. The top of the World Tree touched the North Star, and the spirit of the shaman would climb the metaphorical tree, thereby passing into the realm of the gods. This is the true meaning of the star on top of the modern Christmas tree, and also the reason that Santa Claus makes his home at the North Pole. Ancient peoples were amazed at how this magical mushroom sprang from the earth without any visible seed. They considered this “virgin birth” to have been the result of the morning dew, which was seen as the “semen of the deity.” The silver tinsel we drape onto our modern Christmas tree represents this divine fluid.
The effects of the A. Muscaria usually include sensations of size distortion and flying. The feeling of flying accounts for the legends of flying reindeer, legends of shamanic journeys, and stories of winged reindeer transporting their riders up to the highest branches of the “World Tree”. Santa’s magical annual journey, where his sleigh takes him around the whole planet in a single night, is developed from the “heavenly chariot” (used by the gods from whom Santa and other shamanic figures are descended). The chariot of Odin, Thor, and even the Egyptian god Osiris each have their own connections to the Big Dipper, which circles around the North Star in a 24-hour period.